BEIRUT — One day after longstanding Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan won yet another five-year term in a historic election runoff, loved ones of Lebanese citizens who died in February’s devastating earthquake expressed mixed feelings.
Some observers had warned that the Turkish government’s response to the disaster – which killed more than 50,000 people and leveled entire cities – could finally unseat Erdogan after two decades in power. The 69-year-old president’s tenure also recently saw Turkey’s lira currency tank to record lows against the dollar.
Nevertheless, Erdogan won Monday night by a slim four percent of the vote.
“He’s responsible for so much death,” Hala*, a sister of one of the earthquake victims, told L’Orient-Today after the election was called.
Hala’s brother and his young daughter had been living in the southern Turkish city of Antakya and were both killed in the quake in early February. Antakya was one of the worst-hit cities in the country.
The father and daughter were among the 16 Lebanese citizens killed in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, alongside three Palestinian refugees with Lebanese travel documents.
In parts of Akkar, Tripoli and other Lebanese areas with a strong support base for the Islamist-leaning presidency, Erdogan’s Sunday night victory resulted in fireworks, Turkish flag banners and celebrations in the streets.
To 30-year-old Hala, however, Erdogan “has his priorities, and Antakya was not one of them.”
She forwarded several videos her other brother recently sent from a visit to her brother and niece’s neighborhood in Antakya, now reduced to rubble.
Erdogan ran for reelection on a platform of growing religious piety and strengthened regional influence — priorities that Fadi al-Asaad, another relative, said suit him and others in his Akkar hometown. He and others also cited “economic prosperity” in Turkey during Erdogan’s administration.
Under Erdogan, “Turkey has become one of the most important countries in the Muslim world,” Fadi told L’Orient Today by phone on Monday. “So on the street here in Akkar, people were happy [about the reelection].”
Asked whether he holds Erdogan responsible for the earthquake deaths, Fadi said no.
“In Turkey, it’s the local councils that hold responsibility because they are the ones that are supposed to inspect buildings from the outset,” he said. “This is what we learned on social media.”
Turkey’s construction codes are, at least on paper, up to earthquake safety standards. But these codes are reportedly often ignored.
In any case, Fadi said, “I don’t think there will be a government better than that of Erdogan regarding … the earthquake aftermath.”
“To be honest with you, I’m very happy that Erdogan won the election,” said 27-year-old Muhammad Chamma, who lives in Tripoli. His wife, Suzanne, died in the earthquake at their home in Antakya, leaving behind an infant son.
He said he first saw the news of Erdogan’s win Sunday night on TV, then went down into the street to celebrate.
“In Lebanon, and especially In Tripoli, we are all with Erdogan,” Chamma said. He is now staying with relatives in Lebanon so he and his son can rest, though he hopes he can return someday to Turkey, where he had been working as a tailor before the quake.
Does he blame Erdogan’s government for the scale of loss?
“No, what happened was a huge catastrophe. It wouldn’t have happened differently in any other country in the world,” Chamma said.
Muhammad al-Asaad, Suzanne’s cousin and a former mayor of the Akkar town of Ghuzeileh, agreed. “To me, it’s hard to find someone better than Erdogan,” he told L’Orient Today.
“The [Turkish] government was very cooperative with us, with sending the body back [to Lebanon] from Turkey.”
“We have a strong Ottoman history here in Ghuzeileh, and it’s something we feel proud of,” Muhammad added.
Bassel Habkouk, who was in Antakya on a business trip during the earthquake, managed to survive several days beneath the rubble of his hotel before rescuers pulled him from the wreckage. He was relatively lucky; his friend Elias died in the disaster.
Habkouk said his opinion of Erdogan “hasn’t changed at all” since the quake, despite widespread criticism of inadequate aid response.
“I’m Christian, and I like Erdogan because he’s someone who loves his country,” said Habkouk, who, unlike many of the other Lebanese families impacted by the quake, comes from a Christian village in South Lebanon. “It was Turkish rescuers who pulled me from the rubble. I have ties to that country.”
Meanwhile, Hala now lives in France, where she said she’s been keeping in touch with her brother’s widow, Zehra*, a Turkish citizen.
On Sunday night, after the results were announced, she said Zehra texted her, upset.
“Erdogan won,” she wrote in a text, which Hala screenshotted. Next to the text was a crying sad-face emoji. “So many people died in the earthquake,” Zehra wrote.
Moving forward, said Hala, “I think that, [at] minimum, the government should compensate the people who lost breadwinners” like her brother, who had been a doctor in Antakya.
But still, “nothing will compensate” for the losses, she added. “A lot of people are dead.”
*L’Orient Today has changed some of the names of people in this article at their request, to protect their privacy.
BEIRUT — One day after longstanding Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan won yet another five-year term in a historic election runoff, loved ones of Lebanese citizens who died in February’s devastating earthquake expressed mixed feelings.Some observers had warned that the Turkish government’s response to the disaster – which killed more than 50,000 people and leveled entire cities –...